Missouri Law on Abortion Clinics Faces Review

A federal judge is reviewing a Missouri law that requires abortion providers to become licensed as ambulatory surgical centers. To do so may require retrofitting offices to meet codes. Those who favor abortion rights see the law as politically motivated.

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It sounds simple enough. A new law in Missouri requires abortion providers to become licensed as ambulatory surgical centers. But that law is key to the availability of abortion in that state. So pro-life groups are cheering it. Planned Parenthood and a private doctor have gone to court to stop it, and now a federal judge is reviewing it.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: In Columbia, Missouri, in the middle of the state, Planned Parenthood runs a clinic that provides family planning and abortions one day a week. Inside, it looks like many doctors offices - with a waiting area, two surgical rooms, a recovery area with half a dozen recliners, and a lab. But the building doesn't meet the specifications of an ambulatory surgical center.

Peter Brownlie is with Plan Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

Mr. PETER BROWNLIE (Planned Parenthood): This hallway, for example, is five-feet wide; the regulations would require a six-foot corridor. The procedure rooms that we were in, as we said, are about 10 by 12, the regulations require a minimum of 12 by 12. What that would mean is that this entire area would have to be demolished.

LOHR: What it also means, according to Brownlie, is that cost of the renovation would run about $650,000. It would include changing room sizes, the ventilation system, plumbing, and take several months to complete.

Mr. BROWNLIE: So significant disruption and significant expense. This is really a part of an overall effort by anti-choice legislators and our governor to make it difficult - if not impossible - for women to get abortions in the state of Missouri.

LOHR: The new law says if clinics do five or more abortions per month, they must meet the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center, even clinics and private doctors offices that offer first trimester medical abortions that do not require any surgery.

In July, when Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed the bill at a Baptist Church in Jefferson City, he called it one of the strongest pieces of pro-life legislation in state history.

Governor MATT BLUNT (Republican, Missouri): The abortion lobby argues that this provision might require some abortion clinics in our state to shut down. I say if they can't meet these same basic requirements that other providers do, then they should shut down.

LOHR: The Alliance Defense Fund, a non-profit pro-life group, has taken on the job of defending the law along with the state. The group calls the surgical center regulations common sense standards that should apply to all clinics.

Pam Fichter with Missouri Right to Life says the law is not merely political.

Ms. PAM FICHTER (Missouri Right To Life): We're very happy to see abortions reduced by whatever means, although that wasn't the purpose of this legislation. If that's a by-product of it, we certainly are not going to be disappointed in that.

LOHR: Fichter says the new rules - from the type of construction to the width of hallways - are important for safety.

Ms. FICHTER: These are set up in order to provide emergency care treatment. Abortion clinics should be able to provide that type of emergency care. And if that requires the widening of the hallways, that's what they should be required to do.

Dr. ALLEN PALMER (Obstetrics and Gynecology, Des Peres Hospital): It has nothing to do with safety. It's an unreasonable restriction.

LOHR: Allen Palmer is a doctor in the St. Louis area who provides gynecological services and about 500 abortions a year in his private office. Dr. Palmer, who's been practicing for 31 years, says it would cost more than a million dollars to comply with the law - a cost, he says, he can't afford.

Dr. PALMER: Sixty percent of my practice is gynecology - women I have taken care of for years, and their daughters. I devoted my life to helping women. I don't want to close my practice.

LOHR: If the law goes into effect, three of the four clinics that provide abortions in Missouri would have to find a way to meet the new specifications or stop providing abortions.

A federal judge in Kansas City is expected to rule this week on whether the law will go in effect while both side continue to debate the issue in court.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, St. Louis.

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